Veteran Cambridge and Boston educator reflects on No Child Left Behind in ‘Testing Education’

A publicity image from the University of Massachusetts Press for “Testing Education.”

A longtime Cambridge resident and a graduate of MIT, Kathy Greeley spent 37 years teaching in Cambridge and Boston Public Schools before retiring five years ago. In the middle of her career, No Child Left Behind was signed into law by former President George W. Bush, requiring states to establish academic standards and assessment systems to ensure students meet those standards. The act, implemented in 2002, changed U.S. public education fundamentally, Greeley says in, “Testing Education: A Teacher’s Memoir.” In it, Greeley recounts the impact of education reform and what she calls America’s obsession with standardized testing. She reflects on her experience as a teacher before and after No Child Left Behind, bringing the teacher’s voice to a transformation that has long been critiqued by scholars and commentators. “Testing Education” will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press on April 22, and she will speak at the main branch of the Cambridge Main Library on May 2. We interviewed Greeley on April 12; her words have been edited for length and clarity.


What made you want to become a teacher?


I’m kind of a child of the ‘60s, and I felt like I wanted to do good8776. I tried working in health care for about nine months before I realized that was not my world. So I thought about what I was passionate about. I really love history – I was a history major in college – and I loved sharing history and I really liked kids, so I thought I should be a teacher. In college I never thought about being a teacher because people were becoming lawyers and doctors and getting Ph.D.s. But I found my true calling. I never thought I would want to work with middle school-aged kids, because everyone says they’re such a nightmare, and I was a nightmare at that age, but they ended up being my people. They’re just so interesting intellectually. I always talk about this time we took our kids on an overnight trip because there was this girl who on one side of her suitcase had makeup, a hairdryer, curlers, and all that stuff, and on the other side, she had stuffed animals. That really epitomizes it for me.

How did No Child Left Behind change the teacher experience?

I have a preface in the book in which I mention the boiling frog apologue: If a frog is put into boiling water, it will jump out. But if a frog is put in water that is then brought to a boil, it will be boiled to death because it will not perceive the danger. Schools are unrecognizable now from what they were in 2001, but that change has happened very slowly, like boiling a frog.

We don’t have to get boiled to death. We need to jump out of this pot. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and all those other what I call corporatization policies, our schools are dying. They’re not good places anymore, they’re not happy places. It’s why teachers don’t want to be in them and it’s why kids don’t want to be in them. I had so much freedom as a teacher to try different things and to experiment, because I was treated as a professional, and I had the freedom to talk to my colleagues and engage in different ideas together. Now teachers are so exhausted, so beaten down, so voiceless. And a lot of the younger teachers today were students when MCAS was introduced, so they don’t know anything different. They’re partly who I wrote the book for, the teachers – and parents – who don’t know what we used to have.

And what do you see as its greatest effects on students?

Mental health issues are a huge one. I know some of these issues are attributable to the Covid pandemic, but if you look at the data, this was happening before and of course it’s only gotten worse. We had children who were in the middle of this historical event while totally isolated, and then we brought them back to school and everyone was focused on learning loss. The insistence on catching them up is an inhumane response, and I think children are really suffering.

The other thing that has happened that I think many people don’t realize is that academic standards have gotten higher and higher. What we used to be doing in second grade, kids in kindergarten are now doing. I write about visiting a kindergarten classroom where the kids were struggling to hold their pencils. The teacher would correct them very nicely, but then she’d leave, and they’d start holding their pencils in their fists again. I talked to the occupational therapist in the school, and she said it was a developmental crime, because kids at that age should be finger-painting to develop their upper body strength and playing with clay to strengthen their hands. Holding pencils is not what children need to be doing at that age. Upping the academic ante all the way down through preschool is having impacts on kids. And just in the fall, in Cambridge, the superintendent announced a new elementary school schedule that cut back on recess time, lunchtime, choice time and nap time, all in the interest of raising kids’ test scores in literacy and math.

What made you want to write about your experiences as a teacher, and what was the process like?

I wrote another book about 20 years ago when I had a Conant fellowship at Harvard and kept thinking about this class that I had had that was really, really hard. They were a very challenging group, and they did a pretty major turnaround during the year, and I thought, I have to remember what we did so I don’t forget about it. I started writing it down, and it became a book. That helped me realize that I could write a book, and that the writing process was a really important way of processing my own thinking. As corporate education reform got more and more intense, I kept thinking that I had to tell this story. Teachers would read my first book and they’d say, “I loved your book, I loved what you were doing, and it’s so amazing what kids can do, but we can’t do those things anymore.” When I retired, I started writing, and the book kind of just emerged. I really believe that teachers’ voices have been silenced; there’s a lot of teacher bashing, and I know teachers in Cambridge who are very opposed to all the standardization, but they have been told in no uncertain terms by their administrators that there will be consequences for talking to parents about this. There’s a lot of fear among teachers to say what they think, and now that I’m retired I feel like I can speak on their behalf, and I hope the book achieves that.

Where do you think we go from here?

I actually do feel like we can turn things around. I’m a big union person, and I believe that the power of the unions has been really important in bringing some of these issues to the forefront. I’m really hopeful about a bill called The Thrive Act that was proposed and is in the Legislature that would end MCAS being a graduation requirement, which would also stop state receivership of schools and calls for an independent task force to look into different kinds of assessments. There’s also a question on the ballot in November about ending MCAS as a graduation requirement. I’m hopeful about that because it gives us an opportunity to talk to people about what to know, and why it matters to get up and vote in favor of this.

We need to have clear standards and clear guidelines, but the best curriculum and the best learning has always been teacher-generated. I’m a big believer that when we treat people like professionals and give them some autonomy, they will do really high-quality work. In the book I talk about Finland, and I was just reading about Estonia – these two small countries in Europe that have very, very high-quality education. They didn’t get there through corporatizing schools, standardized curriculum or testing up the wazoo. They got there by building communities and establishing common visions. They created high standards, but people understood them and could hold themselves to them.

  • Kathy Greeley speaks at 5:30 p.m. May 2 at the Cambridge Public Library, 449 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge.

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